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Portraits on coins: A humanising force

The lifelike representation of the human face was a major focus for artists during the Greek Archaic and Classical periods. Their images showed gods or heroes, the Platonic Forms of divinity or beauty. Following the victories of Alexander III, we begin to find on statues and coins depictions of the rulers of Syria, Egypt and Bactria with individualised features: real people rather than abstractions.

The last years of Republican Rome and the early centuries of the Empire saw the highest degree of sophistication in portraits, from stone busts and painted mummy cases to coins. A reincarnated Nero or Nerva would be instantly recognisable them with little difficulty. No other period before the Renaissance, depicted the enigmatic faces of real individuals as if they were still alive.

The nymph Larissa; drachm of Larissa, Thessaly, struck c.365-356 BC

On some rare occasions, this realism has conferred immortality on even ordinary citizens. At the Metropolitan Museum in New York, Cominia Tyche, the ‘chaste and loving wife’ of Lucius Annius Festus is as alive today in her funerary altar with a crooked smile and round chin as during her brief sojourn in this world at the end of the first century AD.

This window into the past was closed all too soon. Some historians attribute the change to an increasingly totalitarian and theocratic nature of Roman society. For example, the image of the emperor in mosaics and on coins became a hieratic facing icon flanked by crosses during the reign of Justinian I (527-65), who closed the only remaining forum for freedom of thought, the Platonic Academy in Athens.

Pompey the Great; denarius of Sextus Pompey, struck in Sicily, 40-39BC 

Similarly, portraiture on British coinage also sank as low as that of any of the successor states to the Western Roman Empire with the facing busts of the short-cross and long-cross coinages of the Plantagenets.

The evocative authenticity of the coins as historical objects is intense and compelling and exact portraiture is a valuable achievement of civilisation: a humanising force. Even when technical skill has not been equal to the task, the attempt has still been made over the centuries to depict faces – from Zeus and Athena to ordinary citizens.

This blog is an abridged version of an article by James Booth, first published in Baldwin’s Fixed Price List, Winter 2018, p. 3-7.

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James Booth

The Gothic crown of Victoria belongs among that handful of coins which are regularly declared to be ‘the most beautiful in the English Series’. But what does it mean to describe the applied art of a coin as ‘beautiful’? In the case of the dekadrachms of ancient Syracuse or the didrachms of Thessaly, the question answers itself. Aesthetic appeal was clearly among the foremost aims of the makers of these coins. Some Syracusan die-cutters even signed their dies as works of art. More recently, the Committee on the Coinage set up in 1926 by the Irish Free State and chaired by the poet W. B. Yeats was charged with choosing designs of the ‘finest artistic effect’, in an assertion of cultural assurance exorcising centuries of oppression. The designs of the English engraver Percy Metcalfe, who won the competition (woodcock, pig, hen, hare, hound, bull, salmon and hunter), remain iconic examples of fine design.

But rarely in coinage are aesthetic motives so much to the fore. Artistic considerations may be of some relevance to the immobilised designs of late medieval pennies, florins, ducats, groats, dinars and dirhems. But the main motive is utilitarian: to reassure the user with familiar symbols of the power which guarantees the coin’s value, or, as in the case of the pennies of William the Conqueror or the European talers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, to inspire awe for the monarch’s power and magnificence. It is this last motive which is most likely, if other circumstances happen to be right, to produce a ‘beautiful’ result. But, when the word ‘beauty’ is applied to a coin today, one suspects also that the gender of the monarch portrayed may be a factor. Coin collecting is a romantic pastime and the word ‘beautiful’ will perhaps come more readily to the lips of a modern collector when considering a 30 shilling sovereign of Mary Tudor than one of Henry VII, or a pound of Elizabeth I rather than Briot’s Scottish unite of Charles I.

In some cases, also, the pressures of the coin market compromise the evaluation of a coin’s ‘beauty’. Cataloguers and collectors overstate the attraction of the unfamiliar rarity in comparison with that of a commoner coin. The double leopard of Edward III is lauded above the more imaginative design of the commoner noble. Similarly lavish praise is heaped on William Wyon’s early proof five-pound piece of Victoria, whose faintly preposterous Una and the Lion reverse has a solemnity verging on the unintentional self-parody of ‘Victoriana’. In contrast the commoner Gothic crown, with its elaborate bust rather than high relief head, and its cross-of-shields reverse, retains a less ‘dated’ appeal.

In the early nineteenth century, the Romantic Movement replaced the ‘neoclassicism’ of the Enlightenment with medieval, ‘Gothic’ styles in art and architecture. Three elements of the design of the Gothic crown manifest this ‘retro’ fashion. First there is the lettering, which is an exquisite Victorian reimagining of the Gothic scripts and typefaces of Northern Europe of the Medieval and Renaissance periods, familiar to us today from Tudor incunabula printed with ‘black letter’ type, or the prints of Dürer. The year this coin was issued, 1847, saw the opening of the Lords Chamber in the Palace of Westminster, designed by Charles Barry and ornamented with a profusion of gold-leaf gothic script by the Catholic convert, Augustus Pugin. But the script in the Houses of Parliament and on the coin shows a characteristic Victorian paradox. The immaculate precision of each letter manifests all the characteristics of industrial mass-production, making its effect far indeed from the quaint irregularities of real medieval black-letter type produced with wooden blocks. As with the pinnacles and crockets of Barry’s Houses of Parliament or the cast-iron columns of Victorian railway stations, a confident modern mastery of technology contradicts the archaic past which it nostalgically evokes. The Victorians’ medievalism is expressed with ultra-modern sophistication.

The second ‘Gothic’ characteristic is the medieval hairstyle with its long plait framing the ear, and the bodice with its square colletage and elaborate lacework, making the queen into a version of Madeline in Keats’s Eve of St Agnes or Beatrice in a painting by Millais or Dante Gabriel Rossetti. It is a style that would certainly have been attractive to Albert, the German royal consort, whom the queen had married in 1840. This English queen is at the same time a German Mädchen. The monarch also makes a personal appeal to the viewer as a glamorous celebrity. In a similar way photographs of the young Elizabeth II gave her a touch of the Hollywood film star.   Victoria, here, with her half open lips is vulnerable and, very discreetly eroticised. This is a version of female royalty rare in earlier periods, though we can detect it perhaps in the bust on the first sole-reign groat of Mary Tudor, with its refined profile and flowing, unrestrained hair. Medieval romances were still popular in the Tudor period, and Mary has something of the appearance of a Lady from the world of chivalry. The coins of Mary’s sister Elizabeth also evoke the mystique of romance, but only rarely in her portrayals does femininity prevail over majesty.  

It is Victoria’s femininity which, perhaps, made possible the third ‘Gothic’ feature of this crown: the crown itself. After the Restoration in 1666 Charles II had briefly reasserted the ‘divine right’ to kingship which his father had so sincerely, and disastrously, claimed. On his initial hammered coinage Charles wears the crown which he had so unexpectedly regained. But this bravado was short-lived. Charles II, unlike his father, was a modern pragmatist. On his subsequent milled issues he wears the Roman wreath seen on the ‘laurel’ coins of James I and also on the coinage of the republican Cromwell. Charles knew better than to tempt providence by insisting on the more archaic symbols of kingship. In what was now a ‘constitutional monarchy’ his subjects were beginning to see themselves as citizens rather than subjects. Perhaps, also, it seemed inappropriate to proclaim an out-of-date ideology on the new, machine-made ‘milled’ coins. For the best part of two centuries rulers were content to confine the wearing of crowns to their coronation medals. The circulating coins showed the less contentious image of a defender of a Roman res publica, the men wearing a wreath, the women a fillet.

But by the time of Victoria, the world had moved on. The republican spirit of the French Revolution had succeeded in crossing the channel only in diluted forms, and an idealizing medievalism gave support to political and religious atavism. By 1847 it seemed safe once more to show the monarch wearing a crown. And where better to do this than on a ‘crown’ coin? Victoria’s gender must surely also be relevant. On the head of a young woman the crown no doubt seemed less provocative than on the head of a man, incurring less risk that the ‘dei gratia’ in the legend would be take to mean literally what it said, as it had done to the followers of Charles I. Now, rather, it carried a Romantic, Anglican, metaphorical meaning. Like Mary this queen was again a figure of romance, but ‘romance’ revisited: performative and sophisticated. On a more abstract level Wyon’s artistic use of the silver medium in his portrayal of the young queen, is in itself subtly beautiful. The way that filigree lace and the delicate surface of skin are rendered through the relief and texture contrasts of this mutedly reflective metal is quite different from the bolder, sculpturesque effect at which Wyon aimed in the Una and the Lion coin, struck in highly reflective gold. The crown is analogous to an oil painting; the five-pound piece to a statue.

The gothic crown was struck first in 1847, eleven years after the queen came to the throne, when she was twenty-nine years old. The mintage was limited to 8000. The edge of most specimens bears in raised lower case gothic lettering, interspersed with roses and crowns: ‘decus et tutamen’ (‘an ornament and safeguard’, originally against clipping) ‘anno regni undecimo’. A few coins in the issue, like the specimen illustrated here, have a plain edge. A very small number of proofs was also issued with the date 1853. The 1847 coins had only limited circulation and the perfect preservation of many specimens has produced a strange market in which some collectors will pay prices many times greater than the EF value for specimens with a blue or rainbow-toned mirror finish. In early 2013, a coin with a patchy dark red and blue tarnish, far indeed from Wyon’s intention, and which to an inexpert eye quite spoils the visual impact of the design, was billed as ‘The Most Beautiful of all Gothic Crowns?’ and fetched more than $50,000 (inclusive). Alexander Pope derided pale antiquaries for poring over ‘the sacred rust of twice ten hundred years’. In our postmodern times, it seems, the ‘rust’ of a hundred and sixty years has even more value. The slippage of the word ‘beautiful’ from the design and fabric of the coin to its surface and colour, is amusing. All gothic crowns have the same design, and it is difficult to see how the chance effects of oxidization can make it more ‘beautiful’, except in the most trivial of senses.

The Gothic bust and shield reverse of the crown proved popular, and the basic elements of the design were transferred two years later in 1849 to the first modern florin of two shillings.

This replaced the Gothic lettering with plain capitals, but bears a bust even more delicate and romantically feminine than that of the crown, with a fetching, slightly protruding upper lip. The archaic design was thus paradoxically used as the vehicle of the first step towards modernisation of the coinage. The coins bore the reverse legend ‘ONE FLORIN – ONE TENTH OF A POUND’. The mint can have had little idea that ingrained British conservatism would delay the completion of the planned decimalisation until 1971! In another sign of modernity the ‘D.G.’ claim of divine right was omitted, to the disapproval of religious conservatives. The coin is still primly designated ‘Godless’ in coin catalogues.

In 1851, the year of the Great Exhibition, the archaic script was restored on the new ‘Gothic florin’ (not illustrated here), which showed a simpler version of the shield reverse. The open lipped, girlish look was replaced with an image of regal formality, more appropriate perhaps to a monarch who presided over an international empire, presenting the public face of British imperialism and mercantile expansion. It was minted for the next thirty-six years, the bust becoming severer as the queen aged. In 1887 it was replaced by the ‘Jubilee’ designs, showing a quite different image of the monarch, now sixty-eight years old.

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Baldwin’s Launches New Fixed Price List

Baldwin’s Launches New Fixed Price List

The 6th March will see the launch of Baldwin’s new spring fixed price list, an opening numismatic salute to spring, which will be recorded as an unprecedented season of numismatic delights here at Baldwin’s. We will hold a private view of the 2019 Spring fixed price list in our iconic 399 Strand store’s private viewing area, and there will be a presentation by our specialist Jeremy Cheek on his new book ‘Money, Monarchy, Medals’ which features a foreword by HRH The Prince of Wales.

One of the standout pieces from the upcoming fixed price list is a recent Baldwin’s purchase a very rare coin which is also probably the most ‘blue blooded’ piece we have ever had, a gold Half-Angel of James I.  Its pedigree is without equal as it has been in all the most important collections in the last 150 years! Four of these collections are the finest and most extensive English coin collections ever assembled and has been the prize example of its type in all of these.   In its most famous collection, the Lockett collection, auctioned in 1956 by Glendinings, its quality was illustrated by the description of the coin in the sale catalogue as ‘in beautiful state for this excessively rare coin’ where it was bought by Spink for £190, which was £30 more than a Spur Ryal of the same king that has fetched (in auction) in excess of £85,000!

Issued between 1613 and 1615 it was tariffed at 5 shillings (and then a couple of years later at 5 shillings and 6 pence after the currency reform). It was the last series of Half-Angels to be minted and with the currency reform in 1619 the denomination was discontinued for ever.  In these final years of issue, under James the output was very small and these little coins are excessively rare. No other of this quality has come up for sale for many years and this particular specimen is probably the best condition piece in existence.

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New World Record Hammer Price for a Five Guinea Piece

New World Record Hammer Price for a Five Guinea Piece

A fantastic auction achievement for Baldwin’s of St. James’s at The New York Premier Sale. The bidders of the room were joined by over 150 hopeful bidders online. The highlight of the day came towards the middle of the session when a Five Guineas piece – one of the finest examples of British Coinage – garnered bids from both the room, over the phone and online. After some intense bidding to start with, it was eventually wheedled down to just two bidders on the phone, who went toe-to-toe before the hammer finally came down on a price of $1,080,000 including premium (£845,000).  The realised price was more than expected and a new world record for any British coin under the hammer.

The superb piece is special for a variety of reasons. Three variant positions of the hallmark are known to exist, of which the variety seen on the present specimen appears to be the rarest. As the coin was struck in extremely limited numbers, according to all historical accounts, this represents quite an opportunity for research to explain how three obverse dies were created.

The most recent history of the Royal Mint, edited by C. E. Challis, underscores the mint’s considerable need for gold specie at this time. Just as Anne assumed the throne, the War of Spanish Succession broke out, in 1702; it was a battle for dominance in much of Europe between two sets of allies (and old enemies), England and the Dutch Republic, against the hated French and the Bourbon Spanish. Hard money ruled the day, not credit nor good will. The vigours of war were upon the British just as the coffers of the Bank of England suffered from a lack of gold. Fate, however, was about to intervene in a battle which no one could have predicted to become memorable. The result was more patriotically stimulating than financially helpful, yet its influence was considerable.

The action commenced when a fleet of Anglo-Dutch warships tried to seize Cadiz in mid-September 1702, but the attempt was a failure. The commander of the fleet, Admiral Sir George Rooke, had just turned in disgust to begin his homeward journey when he was informed by spies that a Spanish treasure fleet was known to have recently anchored at Vigo Bay on the northwest shore of Spain. Rooke’s warships turned about quickly. What was at hand, he had learned quite unexpectedly, was an armada of Spanish ships carrying gold and silver specie mined in colonial Mexico. Spies informed Rooke that the fleet had sailed from Veracruz protected by a French squadron of fifteen warships, and that three galleons were loaded with silver and gold. Frigates and support ships added up to what must surely have seemed a daunting fleet of 56 vessels, many carrying merchandise intended for sale in Spain – all of them now moored in Vigo Bay. Eager for booty, Rooke did not hesitate to engage the enemy.

A furious naval battle was fought on 23 October and the victory this time was England’s despite a forbidding boom consisting of heavy chain and timber that stretched across the entrance to the bay, as well as a battery of cannons, meant to block and defeat any attack. But the allies’ men o’ war crashed through the boom with little difficulty.

To stall the advance, the Spanish even set fire to one of their own vessels, alongside the Dutch admiral’s flagship, intending to burn the Dutch ship. The Spanish ship, however, was loaded with snuff from the Indies, and it blew up! Rooke’s engagement was successful. The Spaniards’ cannons were overcome.

The boom intended to block passage to the harbour was broken through. With all resistance gone, the Anglo-Dutch warships sailed right towards the docked Spanish ships, easily destroying or capturing the remaining enemy ships. In a day and a half, the Battle of Vigo Bay had been won, and the booty was ready to be seized. It was a tremendous victory!

Jubilation reigned until the English discovered that most of the ships’ holds were nearly empty, that the treasure from the New World mines had been unloaded and carted away before they arrived at Vigo. Nevertheless, winning the battle was a significant moment in the war and what remained of the specie was taken and delivered to the Royal Mint. Although it fell far short of expectations, and was not in the form of New World cobs, most of the booty was a hefty 4,500 pounds of silver that had been ornaments and ‘plate’ belonging to the Spanish and French officers. Challis notes, as have previous chroniclers, that the gold specie weighed just 7 pounds, 8 ounces. It has long been believed that, from this small amount, all British gold coins given the boasting hallmark VIGO were minted: a mere handful of the large 5-guineas, it is said, as well as a small number of the two other denominations, guineas and half-guineas. The coins’ celebrity has only intensified through the centuries. Just as they were about to be minted, however, Queen Anne issued a royal warrant authorising their creation in which she poignantly stated that the VIGO hallmark would be applied to the coins so as to ‘Continue to Posterity the Remembrance of that Glorious Action’ at Vigo Bay. And, indeed, Anne’s Vigo coinage remains some of the most desirable of all British coins.